HOUSTON – (Realty News Report) – Bob Eury, president/CEO of the Houston Downtown Management District, is retiring after a long career of working to make downtown a 24/7 activity center with a broad mix of uses.
Eury was a recent guest on THE RALPH BIVINS PROJECT, a podcast produced by Realty News Report. Here is an excerpt from his appearance.
Ralph Bivins: We are here today to talk about urban issues, specifically, downtown Houston. There’s no one better to talk to than Bob Eury. Since 1983, he has served as president of Central Houston, Inc., a non-profit urban assistance agency. He is also president of the Downtown Redevelopment Authority.
Bob, downtown Houston has changed a lot since the 1980s. In the last 40 years, what has been the No. 1 change – the difference maker?
Bob Eury: I think probably one of the most important things to consider is the fact that there has been a vision for what we needed in the downtown. When we founded Centraal Houston downtown in 1983, we had 10 million SF of office space under construction. We were coming out of a real robust time in the energy industry, though we were about to go into an oil bust.
More Than an Office Park
We were born into a difficult time with the economics of downtown. In the collective conversation envisioning downtown, we felt we had to be more than just an office park – and we were on a trajectory to do that. There were a number of pieces that had to fall into space. We had and always have had a strong office market. Then, there was the tourism and convention business, the success of the George R. Brown Convention Center, the hotels and all that. Aside from the private investment, public investment was minimal at that time. Some people said that downtown was crumbling. There have been millions — actually, billions invested in infrastructure such as streets, parks and all that since that time. Now, people are living downtown again. It just had to happen. Fortunately, first, it took place in the historic rehabilitations, using tax credits and tax exemptions. The Downtown Living Initiative in the last decade had a profound impact on people living in downtown.
Ralph Bivins: That was the $15,000 per unit multifamily initiative, a tax incentive?
Bob Eury: Yes, the $15,000 per “door.” It was one very important thing. It is very exciting to see new residential projects being built without those initiatives. But we used them at the time to get things going. Now, I believe there is a market in downtown. It is exciting to see something like that when it’s actually working. Now, we are moving on to develop apartments and residential communities. We have now surpassed 10,000 people living downtown. That’s very exciting. We need 20,000 to 30,000. But listen,10,000 is a great milestone.
Ralph Bivins: New apartment development is good for the city and gives energy to the streets. Regarding the George R. Brown Convention Center which opened on the east side in 1987 and was a big magnet for growth on the east side of the downtown. I have wondered, you have all this city money being spent to develop a convention center and county money being spent around the Astrodome. I wonder why we didn’t the city and county get together and create one major convention center that could host the very largest, top-tier conventions?
Bob Eury: Well, over the years, we have looked at that. When you consider the money spent on NRG Park area and the George R. Brown Convention Center. They are complementary to each other. NRG Park has a big footprint allowing for big, big shows that are very, very hard to do at George R. Brown. Really, in many ways, they are complementary. And along the Main Street corridor, a train connects these two places.
There was a period of time in the mid-1990s where there was a possibility of football in the downtown. It didn’t happen. But it’s helpful to have something of the scale of NRG Stadium with major league soccer, pro football and college football. This kind of facility needs a huge footprint. I have found from dealing with places like this in other parts of the country that it’s not easy working with them. There are big, big crowds, and there are many days when there is actually nothing going on. We would rather have something smaller with more frequent activity to keep the vitality going in downtown.
Ralph Bivins: Houston built the downtown stadium for the Astros, which 162 baseball games a year. This is better than the NFL which plays only 16 games in a year.
Bob Eury: They did do that. And you have downtown’s Toyota Center aarenaa, which is used less than the baseball stadium, but it’s still used a lot. When you add in major league soccer, you end up putting three sports stadiums together with a convention center. That can create a great amount of activity.
Ralph Bivins: Thinking back over the past 40 years, is there anything that’s been missed? Is there anything that could have been done differently?
Bob Eury: There probably have been missed opportunities. One area that has not been easy to develop downtown is retail. Main Street used to be the retail place, up to the 1950s and 1960s, until the Galleria opened in the 1970s. What occurred was the suburbanization of the area, of bringing retail closer to where people live. By this time, that train had already taken off. Now, we are trying to bring more soft retail goods to the downtown. It’s not easy, it involves a substantial investment. And you have to consider that the dynamics of how we buy things have changed.
The Great Challenge — Retail
Retail has been challenging, it really has. You look at the Shops at Houston Center, at Green Street and the various other retail ventures. With anything except food and beverage, it has been a challenge. In the food and beverage industry, we are doing extremely well at this point. We have some extremely well-respected restaurants. What we didn’t have in soft goods, we are making up with really good dining offerings.
Ralph Bivins: It’s been a real tough time since COVID hit. Office buildings downtown have not actually had much of a physical presence of workers inside on a daily basis, although it has improved in 2021. The lunch business at nearby restaurants has become much smaller, compared to what it used to be.
Bob Eury: Even with a full office population, some restaurants survive on their lunch business five days a week. The dining places that are making it through during COVID are the ones that are open seven days a week, for longer hours. If you are in the tunnel, or are open only a few hours a day, it’s very challenging. Downtown, the workforce has recovered to about 30 percent. But that is flat. And it has dropped a bit because of the Delta variant. If you walk down the street, you see the restaurant businesses – and out of every two, one is open and the other is closed.
Sept. 24, 2021 Realty News Report Copyright 2021
(Interview edited for clarity)
For more about Texas real estate, check out the book Houston 2020: America’s Boom Town – An Extreme Close Up by Ralph Bivins. Available on Amazon http://tiny.cc/4a2g6y
Houston 2020 Ebook version https://tinyurl.com/4xm7z8b5
File. Urban Legacy – a Podcast with Bob Eury